The writers of The French Dispatch wonder aloud “What happens next?” This immediately follows the death of their esteemed editor-in-chief, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) who passed away suddenly from a heart attack. In many ways, The French Dispatch—the film—has already answered this question: What happens next is that the future barrels onward in spite of, and in defiance of, the past. As Owen Wilson’s cycling reporter, Herbsaint Sazerac, guides the audience through the charming city streets of fictional Ennui-sur-Blasé, France, he remarks on all that has changed. The grimy alleys, cracked cobblestones, worn cement and havens for less-than-savory types have been gussied up in favor of the more aesthetically pleasing future. What began, Sazerac describes, as “a cluster of tradesmen’s villages” now sees only its names remain unchanged, as even places like the aptly-dubbed “Pickpocket Cul-De-Sac” have had their edges smoothed out.
The French Dispatch—the publication—is a mid-20th century American outpost based in Ennui-sur-Blasé and founded by Kansas native Howitzer. Per his final wishes, upon Howitzer’s death, the publication is to be terminated along with him. The French Dispatch plays out as a visualization of this final issue. Through the framework of a real journal, the film is divided into four segments: An obituary (for Howitzer), a tour guide (via Wilson’s Sazerac) and three feature articles. The articles are titled “The Concrete Masterpiece” in the Arts & Artists section, “Revisions to a Manifesto” in the Politics & Poetry section, and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” in the Tastes & Smells section, interspersed with narration from Anjelica Huston, one of the many frequent Anderson collaborators that proliferate the film. As was the case with 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch is a story within a story—or, in this case, multiple stories within a story, and there are stories within those stories as well.
Because of this, the film can be difficult to follow on a first go, and writer/director Wes Anderson flings so much rapidfire information at you as if to playfully one-up his past self. For J.K.L Berensen’s (Tilda Swinton) article “The Concrete Masterpiece,” Benicio del Toro plays maximum security prisoner and gifted artist Moses Rosenthaler, whose nude paintings of prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux) catch the eye of fellow prisoner and art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody). “Revisions to a Manifesto”—written by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand)—centers on writer and student revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), who becomes sexually involved with Krementz while she’s writing the profile on him. And Roebuck Wright’s (Jeffrey Wright) “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” tracks Wright first as he gives a television interview on his illustrious career, then focuses on the profiling of a famous chef (Steve Park) which turns into something much more.
Anderson remains a creative force to be reckoned with. Frequently rebuked by naysayers for his commitment to his finely-tuned, “quirky” filmmaking style, The French Dispatch proves he is more interested than anything in how to play around with the medium of film and find new ways to tell his stories. Here, he challenges himself to a far more intricate means of storytelling, which is occasionally convoluted but fosters an eagerness to return to the film—to revisit and discover something new. Additionally, he trades previous forays in stop-motion animation for an extended 2D animated chase scene, and even briefly swaps his prototypically stationary, symmetrical camerawork for a dinner table sequence in which the camera slowly revolves around the seated characters, creating a novel and striking dimensionality to his cinematography. Chalamet, Wright and del Toro, in their respective first collaborations with the director, could not have been more perfectly attuned to Anderson’s highly specified wavelength. Even minor roles from new Anderson inductees like Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, Christoph Waltz and Rupert Friend are, as could be expected from a perfectionist like Anderson, a snug fit.
But this is the first film in Anderson’s oeuvre where I (a passionate, longtime “Wes Head” who sports a tattoo derived from his 2007 short film, Hotel Chevalier) might argue that the meticulous director has actually broken through to some of those “style over substance” accusations. The precision with which Anderson once effortlessly deployed anguish, familial strife, love, insecurity and, perhaps above all, loss, within his carefully constructed signature filmmaking is largely absent from his newest endeavor. The various storytelling gimmicks take center stage, while the characters are forced into the back seat. The film becomes a wry showcase for the director’s evolution as a creative who has been refining an unparalleled style for over two decades, with a sharper humor but without the more deeply felt pulse of films like The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox or most recently, and most effectively, The Grand Budapest Hotel. There was a noticeable slip in this quality with 2018’s technically stunning though narratively lacking Isle of Dogs. It holds distance from its canine characters, unlike its animal-led, stop-motion predecessor Mr. Fox, and is not helped by the Japanese language barrier in which subtitles were largely neglected.
Ironically, The French Dispatch shares the most thematic blood with Grand Budapest—two films with political overtones, which share an uneasy conversation between the past and present, haunted by what has been left behind and pessimistic towards what’s to come. Still, it’s not to say that The French Dispatch’s bones are absent of any meat at all. “What happens next?” ends up a proportional sentiment to that of the film’s titular publication, the disappearing town it’s set in and the overall theme within Wes Anderson’s tenth feature: The eternal battle between art and capital. It feels especially prescient when considered in conversation with Anderson’s own standing as a filmmaker, one of the few more prominent auteurs we have left still working, still gifted with the agency and the finances to create whatever he wants. In Anderson’s case, it’s beautiful, famously detailed fusions between visual mediums, stories, colors, sounds and stagings, partnering with some of our best modern actors, telling singular, distinctive narratives, producing art that is utterly his own and eager to better himself along the way. Yet, Anderson undoubtedly bears witness to the crumbling infrastructure of his rapidly changing industry. The question of “What happens next?” is less an inquiry as to the future of a shuttered, fictitious publication than a worrying, real-life prophecy, and The French Dispatch acts as a dialogue with this fear of the future of art.
In this respect, it’s hard to argue that this latent dissolution of character depth is a net negative, when Anderson is clearly interested in, more than anything, growing and evolving as an artist. The Grand Budapest Hotel arguably reached the zenith of Anderson’s marriage between idiosyncratic panache and melancholic storytelling, and when you reach your peak, where else is there to go? Well, thankfully for Anderson, it’s onward, if not unfailingly upward. While Anderson may never recreate his 2014 masterpiece, he continues creating nonetheless—with not reckless, but intrinsically prudent abandon. It is nothing short of a blessing to still be gifted with Wes Anderson’s films, and that we still have even more to come. In that light, the question of “What happens next?” suddenly becomes optimistic—a challenge posed by Anderson to himself, and yet another example of the director’s skillful union between hope and despair. Wes Anderson isn’t going anywhere, even if the medium he has thrived in for 25 years is eating itself alive.
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness
Starring: Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson
Release Date: October 22, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.